Growing, gathering and hunting for food was very important to both the Wampanoag and Pilgrims. For both cultures, good or bad harvests could mean the difference between comfort and hardship.
There were four ways the Wampanoag gathered food during the 1600s and before. These were hunting, fishing, harvesting wild plants and the planting of crops. The Wampanoag have been planting crops for about 1,200 years.
Corn (what the Wampanoag called ewáchim-neash) was the most important staple food grown by the Wampanoag.
Winthrop wrote: “Nature hath delighted itself to beautify this Corne with a great variety of colours.” The chief variety of native corn (they sometimes called it ‘Indean Corne’) in the Cape Cod area was the northern flint variety usually in either white or yellow colors.
In the northern flint each plant only bore two, relatively short ears with only about eight rows of kernels and 30 to 40 kernels in a row. As Winthrop noted, there was “a great variety of colors including white corn, black corn, cherry red corn, yellow, blue, straw-colored, greenish and speckled.”
These were added to soups and other dishes such as nasaump, a thick and filling food made of corn. Some of the nuts and berries were eaten fresh, while others were dried and stored for future use.
Archaeologists and botanists long puzzled over the origins of corn domestication, and there were lively debates throughout the early 20th century. Now, the evidence seems clear that corn derives from a wild grass, teosinte.
Around 9,000 years ago, indigenous people in Central America (Mexico and Guatemala) figured out how to modify the wild grass to get it to produce larger seed kernels, finally producing an edible version of the plant.
Fairly rapidly (in evolutionary terms), the first domesticators shared seeds along their trade routes and corn traveled both north and south. Archeologists have dated the first evidence of corn in the Southwestern United States at about 4,000 years ago. It is thought to have reached the Northeastern United States about 2,100 years ago.
So by the time the Pilgrims arrived from England on the Mayflower, the Native Americans they met had long been engaged in extensive trade networks that spanned the entire continent.
But the remarkable fact is that the first humans to settle the Americas not only domesticated native plants like corn, squash, beans, tomatoes and more, but they also shared their knowledge of these plants with each other across vast distances.
For the most part, foods were eaten when they were available. Some foods, however, were preserved by drying or smoking. At harvest time, beans would be picked and eaten fresh, or dried and saved for winter food or for seeds.
All corn would be dried on the cob. Some dried kernels would be removed to parch over a fire and then were pounded into nokehig, a fine corn flour used for a traveling food as well as thickening for soups. Seeds were saved from all the best plants for planting the following year.
Corn has always been a versatile crop. Easily stored and preserved, it was an essential crop for the Native Americans.
Every part of it could be used, generating no waste at all. The corn itself could be ground into cornmeal for cornbread, corn syrup, and corn pudding. It could be dried out and used to make hominy, where the dried kernels are soaked in a wood ash lye and water solution until they split open, then drained and cooked over a fire.
The husks could be woven into mats or baskets or used to create dolls and other figures. Even the cobs found a use as fuel to burn, as ceremonial rattling sticks, or carved to create darts. Across the Americas, Native peoples bred different varieties and invented literally hundreds of recipes and ways to use corn. Today, corn cultivation is global, and the US is the single largest producer.
The Pilgrims Arrive at Plymouth
When the Wampanoag watched the Mayflower’s passengers come ashore at Patuxet, they did not see them as a threat.
“The Wampanoag had seen many ships before,” explained Tim Turner, Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours.
“They had seen traders and fishermen, but they had not seen women and children before. In the Wampanoag ways, they never would have brought their women and children into harm. So, they saw them as a peaceful people for that reason.”
But they did not greet them right away either.
Squanto Saved the Pilgrims by Teaching them to Farm and Fish
The first direct contact was made by Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, who came to the village on March 16, 1621.
Samoset told the Pilgrims that he knew of a Patuxet who could speak better English than he and that he would bring him and others to them.
The next day, he returned with Tisquantum (Squanto), a Wampanoag who befriended and helped the English that spring, showing them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts.
In the next few days the colonists were visited by several representatives of the Wampanoag, the main Native people in the area.
Squanto was the sole survivor of the Patuxet people, having been abducted by Hunt in 1614 to be sold into slavery in Spain. He had jumped ship and gone to England where he found employment on a trip to Newfoundland and other parts, before returning home in 1618, only to find all his people dead.
Without Squanto’s help and guidance, the Plymouth Colony would not have survived.
The Pilgrims Formed a Plantation
The colonists at Plymouth called their town a “plantation,” a word that comes from the word “plant.”
Farming was a major part of the Pilgrims’ lives.
They grew crops in large open fields. Women planted and tended vegetables and herbs in small gardens behind their houses. Because many of them had come from cities or towns in England with markets, many of the colonists had never farmed or gardened before coming to Plymouth. They were learning to feed themselves.
In Plymouth Colony the colonists’ diet was more varied. In New England, supplies of fish and shellfish were plentiful. Without hunting restrictions, deer, wild fowl, rabbits and other small animals were available to anyone who wanted to hunt them.
The Pilgrims also brought farm animals with them, including pigs, chickens, goats, and later, sheep and cows. These animals provided meat, eggs and dairy products for the colonists.
Families in Plymouth planted enough in their fields to feed themselves. Their main crop was a kind of corn they had never seen before.
The combination of available meat and shellfish, Indian corn and other field crops and garden plants made the Pilgrims’ diet a rich and varied one through most seasons of the year. Like the Wampanoag, however, the colonists experienced seasonal variations. Not all foods were available at every season of the year.
The Pilgrims tried to extend the life of their foods through preservation. Salting, the most common method of preservation, worked well for pork (meat from pigs) and fish. This method was sometimes combined with smoking for meats. Drying was also common. Vinegar pickles and sugar were also occasionally used to preserve foods.
Their lives depended on a good harvest.
Corn Used as Barter
As the years passed, the Pilgrims began to grow more food than they needed to eat. Farming was not just a way to eat, then, but also a way to get goods that they could trade for sugar, spices, oil, vinegar, clothes, shoes, baskets and gunpowder.
The colonists also traded their extra Indian corn with Native People to get furs. The furs were then sent back to England to be sold. The money they made from selling furs was used to buy many of the goods they imported from England.
Later Construction of Grist Mill
“As also how they did pound their corne in morters, as these people were forcte to doe many years before they could get a mille.” (Bradford)
After more than a decade of laboriously grinding corn by hand in wooden mortars, the colony authorized the construction of a water-powered corn grinding mill on Town Brook in 1636.
Colonist John Jenney (who came in on the Little James in 1623) was given permission to run the mill and to take a portion of the corn that was brought for grinding as a payment or “toll.” After his death in 1644 John Jenney left the mill to his wife Sarah. Sarah, and later their son Samuel, ran the mill until 1683.
Nestled alongside Town Brook, and just a short walk from the waterfront and Mayflower II, the Plimoth Grist Mill (aka the Jenney Mill) tells the story of the grist (corn grinding) mill built by the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony. (The Mill burned down in 1837 and was rebuilt on its original site in 1970.)
Click the following link to a general summary about Corn: